For the 118th episode of the Journalism History podcast, hosted by Ken Ward, Edward Alwood explains how activists in the Gay Rights Movement used public relations practices to reframe media coverage of gay and lesbian people in the 1950s and ’60s.
Edward Alwood has taught at the University of Maryland at College Park, Quinnipiac University, and at the American University in Bulgaria. He is a former Washington correspondent at CNN.
Featured image: Randolfe Wicker, posing with a New York Post delivery truck, arranged for a Post reporter to interview gay men in December 1965 for a special series of articles. Courtesy of Randolfe Wicker.
Edward Alwood: Newspaper editors were afraid that by carrying information about homosexuals in their papers, especially on the front page, [it] would drive away readers. They did not want to offend readers.
Ken Ward: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to re-examine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were never told.
Teri Finneman: I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. And together we’re professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. Transcripts of the show were available online at journalism-history.org/podcast. This episode is sponsored by the College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia.
For more than a century, the college has educated students to relentlessly pursue the art, science, and integrity of stories. They’re committed to following First Amendment principles in a digital-first environment as they prepare democracy’s next generation.
The media have often been hostile toward groups seeking civil rights, but the audiences of those same publications are precisely the people groups need to get their message in front of.
As Dr. Edward Alwood explains, this was precisely the problem faced by the gay rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. In this episode, Alwood describes how activists reframed coverage of gay and lesbian people in the media, and the years leading up to the Stonewall Riots of 1969. Ed, welcome to the show. So, you write that public relations is integral to social movements in the United States. How is that the case?
Edward Alwood: Well, it’s not only the gay movement, but in general movements and including some corporations, of course, but for movements, this is really a lifeblood.
And at the time that the gay rights movement began, and I’m going to use the short form of it without all the initials and just say gay rights movement, the mainstream media was composed of print and broadcast because I’m talking about the 1950s and 1960s. So, it was important as the movement began to get word out that there was a movement and there are two especially tangible reasons.
One is to attract more members. Uh, the second is to even attract contributions. And then of course the third and the big one is to try to gain some traction to make some changes. Um, we see that today with various movements, with the movement for women’s rights. We see it with Black Lives Matter.
We see it with global climate change, almost a global warming, but it’s better to say global climate change because the framing there is more conducive.
Ken Ward: Sure. So how, how then, so, if it’s an issue that all social movements need to be concerned with, take us to this, this gay rights movement, right? How did gays and lesbians in the United States come to see themselves as a movement in the first place?
Edward Alwood: Well, before 1950 and including the timeframe for a time after 1950, the only way that a gay or lesbian person was seen in the media was as a menace to society. In 1949, Newsweek magazine ran an article. The headline said, “queer people.” Now today, the word “queer” is pretty well accepted it seems, but back in the 1950s, that was not an acceptable term, and it derided the people who were homosexual, whether it was men or women.
And they were shown as a menace. They were shown in a very negative light. The stereotypes. It showed them as either crazy or as criminals and the police fostered this image because it showed them as doing their duty. Anti-gay psychiatrists, which incorporated most of the psychiatric field, was in favor of this because it helped – they saw themselves as helping these poor individuals that they saw as mentally ill. And so, homosexuality was listed in the diagnostic manual for the psychiatric profession as a mental illness. And that also gave the military the foundation to throw gays and lesbians out of the military if they were found to be in the military. So, it was a very, very negative image, a very stereotypical image that people who were beginning to form the movement were running up against.
Ken Ward: And so how then does, does that sort of environment, that atmosphere coalesce into this movement that we see as you describe it in your research, especially in the 1950s and the 60s? What does that spark that leads these people to start seeing themselves as one unified movement?
Edward Alwood: There was a man named Edward Sagarin who wrote under the pen name of Donald Webster Cory, who did a book in 1950 called The Homosexual in America. Sagarin was very closeted professor at one of the universities in New York, wrote this book. And for the first time – he was a sociologist – for the first time, the description of homosexuals, which would be called gay people during that period and later, were seen as a minority, a social and political minority.
Now today that’s like, okay, sure. Everybody knows that. Well, they did not back in 1950. A man named Harry Hay and four of his friends in Hollywood read the book, were galvanized by it to begin the gay movement. But the interesting thing is they called it the Mattachine Society, which is not an everyday term by any means. They certainly didn’t call it the national association of homosexuals. But because homosexuals were being hunted by the police and arrested for morals charges.
So, Hay and his friends formed the Mattachine Society and of course they needed to get word out that they were forming the society. One of the interesting things about researching this topic and other topics related to this era with the gay rights movement is most of the people did not use their real names. Harry Hay had been a member of the Communist Party and had been thrown out of the Communist Party for being a gay man.
So, he formed the Mattachine Society and that word comes from ancient times. And it’s a court jester. It’s someone who is able to speak the truth to the powers that be from behind a mask. And so, Hay, having been a Hollywood actor at one point, decided that was the best name, but that was not a name that was going to attract publicity. In fact, with homosexuals being seen as mentally ill, it was very, very difficult for any media to treat them as legitimate organizations.
Ken Ward: So, you argue that the leaders of this gay rights movement adopted these PR strategies in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Before we get to those strategies and how they use the media, how had the media been used before that to marginalize these same groups?
Edward Alwood: Media had been used, as I said, to show them as a menace.
Um, but another thing is that the newspapers in a sense sided with the local police. And that is when a gay person was arrested whether they had done anything or not, and it could have been just pure entrapment by the local police, the newspapers would publicize it. They would run the name and it was always a man.
They would always name the man. They would list his home address. They would list his place of employment and, you know, it guaranteed that they were going to lose their jobs. So, in that sense, the newspapers at that point were an extension of the police department in that the police would arrest the person. And even if they were not sentenced by a court, the newspapers inflicted a punishment.
Ken Ward: So, how did these gay and lesbian activists then make their struggle palatable to news organizations in the ‘50s and ‘60s if this is the way the media had previously treated them? How in those first days were they framing themselves?
Edward Alwood: Well, let me give you an example from the Midwest. And that is a man named Harold Call known as Hal Call had joined the Mattachine Society in Chicago. And so, he was familiar with Donald Webster Cory’s work. He was familiar with Harry Hay’s work. And he had been a former newspaper publisher in the Midwest.
He moved to San Francisco and he joined the Mattachine Society there, and then he had a base really of operations, and he had a lot of people who were members of the Mattachine Society in San Francisco. So, he was one who engineered some of these ideas of appealing to the press and presenting their case for being a minority, just like Blacks, just like Hispanics and especially a political and social minority.
He came up with ways to try to influence the press. So, one of the things he did was he had the Mattachine Society poll candidates for city council and the school board on their attitudes toward homosexuality. And then they sent the results of the poll to the local newspapers. Well, none of the local newspapers in San Francisco or Los Angeles ran the stories. But what they did do is turn one of them over to a columnist.
And the columnist named Paul Coates ran a brief article about them and essentially said, who are these people? And did research and said, oh, the leader of these people is a former member of the Communist party. There must be something wrong with these people beyond the fact that they are psychologically damaged. But what he did was he also had a television show that was – he liked to have controversial topics. Something like 60 Minutes has today.
Uh, the more controversial topics perhaps the bigger audience you’ll have. So, he contacted this – Paul Coates contacted the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles, and they put him in touch with a young man who went by the name Curtis White. Curtis White’s real name was Dale Olson. The interesting thing about Dale Olson is that Dale Olson eventually went into public relations and represented some of the biggest celebrities in Hollywood, including Rock Hudson, who at that time was closeted the same way that Dale Olson was closeted.
Well, much before that when Dale Olson was only 20 years old, he went on this television show. He appeared and he made the case that homosexuals were not mentally ill and that homosexuals were not all criminals and people could see for themselves that this person didn’t come across as being mentally ill, and he spoke for himself.
And that was the one, one of the only times, perhaps the very first time that a homosexual was able to speak for himself or herself in the media.
Ken Ward: You write that some of those in the very early days who were working on this, on this public relations work had journalistic training. How important was that journalistic sensibility?
Edward Alwood: Well, it definitely helped guide what the Mattachine was doing in terms of their relationship to the press and showed them how to contact members of the press, find members who were open-minded about covering homosexuality, and then cultivate that person.
Ken Ward: So there’s a – there’s a character who comes up in a big way in your research named Randy Wicker. Can you tell us about Randy Wicker and his – how he impacted all of this?
Edward Alwood: Randy Wicker is a very nice fellow, but he is ferocious.
If you are ever part of a movement, you want someone like Randy Wicker in your movement. He was a student at the University of Texas, and he attended his first meeting of the Mattachine Society in 1958 in Texas. He decided to publicize what the Mattachine Society was doing. And once he moved to New York, he affiliated with the New York Mattachine Society.
And as they would have people come in to speak, such as psychiatrists who were coming in, especially psychiatrists who were sympathetic to their plight, he developed some posters and went around town, especially in the Greenwich Village area and asked business owners if he could put these posters in their businesses. The second thing he did was he contacted the New York Times about doing a story about the gay rights movement. And he’s stumbled upon a man named Robert Doty, a reporter at the New York Times.
And by sheer coincidence Abe Rosenthal, the executive editor at the time, had asked if someone would do a story about the increased numbers of visible homosexuals in New York. Rosenthal had moved back to New York after some time, and he had noticed some men holding hands in the village. So, Doty agreed to do it. Randy Wicker had sent Doty some flyers about some of his talks that they were giving at the Mattachine Society. Doty called him up and Wicker offered to give him a tour of the gay bars, which were not advertised, and most of the time didn’t even have a sign on them.
Uh, so he took Doty on the tour, but the article that came out was very negative. For Wicker, it was a big breakthrough because they had wound up with the very first front-page article that mentioned homosexuals in New York, but in the characteristic terms that were so blatant at the time, it cast them as mentally ill and criminals.
So, it took some time to work on that and Wicker took it on himself to make that his almost his entire life ambition was to change that image.
Ken Ward: So, how did the PR campaign progressed during, throughout the ‘60s and into the mid-‘60s in particular?
Edward Alwood: They began to adopt other ways of attracting attention. That public opinion poll of the city council that I mentioned to you was one of the ways. Uh, another way was for them to make contacts and groom them. But then to have pseudo-events as we call them in the academic world. So, what they would do is invite the press to various things that they were staging, including the very first, this was 1965 gay picketing of the White House here in Washington.
And it was a small group that were very willing, which was unusual to take a public position on what we now call gay rights. Frank Kameny was the one who was in charge of it. He was the president of the Mattachine Society in Washington. And Kameny’s feeling was that if they were going to protest and ask for employment protection, for example, then they should dress as employable people. So, he had the men in the protests wear coats and ties, and he had the women, the lesbians wear dresses.
And so, this was the very first gay protest in America. There had been other protests that Randy Wicker staged in New York that had gay people marching, and that had to do with the Vietnam War and the military throwing gays out of the military. But the first real official full-fledged 100 percent gay march picketing was here in Washington at the White House.
So, they would stage these types of events. And then because of that, they made contacts at CBS and correspondent Mike Wallace invited several of the ones who were part of the picketing to appear on his program, which was called The Homosexuals. He did a documentary and he did it for a show called CBS Reports, which was on for quite a number of years, and it was succeeded by 60 Minutes. But this was another time that gays now were able to speak for themselves on a national platform.
Ken Ward: Well, and so you’ve spoken a couple of times about these TV connections. You’ve also in that Washington D.C. protest demonstrated there’s a real, very obvious interest in visual appearance and, and how they – how gay rights groups look to the public at large. Talk a little bit about how different were those TV appearances from print stories that may have been written about them during this era? What was the difference between those two media?
Edward Alwood: Well, it meant a lot to be able to see the person talking. And one of the interviews on that program was with Jack Nichols. And at that time, Jack Nichols was in his 20s. Uh, he was a very athletic looking fellow. He spoke very, very well. He was very smart. He, by the way, later opened up a gay newspaper in New York called Gay. So, he was drawn to the idea of public communication and journalism.
And Jack Nichols did not look a thing like the stereotype, not at all, which made him a bit of a curiosity. There was another one who appeared and he used a fake name, but he also spoke very well and did not look the part that we had been shown in the newspaper articles of the poor homosexual who walks with a swish, who spoke with a lisp, and was mentally ill.
These two fellows just by being on television and answering questions and not being ashamed of themselves, not hiding behind a mask, not having their face blacked out. They were – they were ready to answer any questions anybody had, including Mike Wallace. Now all of this was drawing more people to the movement. All of this was not paid publicity. This was free publicity thanks to the journalists who are fascinated by what they were seeing.
Ken Ward: So, how did all of this parallel what was happening in the broader Civil Rights movement during the same era?
Edward Alwood: Well, in the broader Civil Rights Movement you had, for instance, the Freedom Riders.
You had bus companies not allowing African Americans to get on the buses. You had all sorts of public places not allowing African Americans to use the restroom. They had a separate restroom for them. Movie theaters had a separate area. The thing about homosexuals is for all purposes, they don’t look homosexual at least most of the time. They are able to hide their minority status where other minorities are not able to. Sometimes that brings up some resentment among other minorities but gay people tend to be self-disclosing.
So, it was pretty amazing when a gay person did step up like Jack Nichols did. He later also wrote a book. So, Jack was quite, quite a smart fellow. And as I said, drawn to into the journalism area.
Now, everything I’ve talked about so far is before Stonewall, by the way.
Ken Ward: Well, so, so we have Stonewall in summer of 1969. Then where, where does all of this lead in the decades that have come since, right? And in these last few minutes, how did we get from all of this that you have been talking about to where we are today?
Edward Alwood: Well, I’m so glad you spent time talking about everything up until 1969 when Stonewall happened because so many people think the gay rights movement started that summer of 1969. It did not. It began to attract a lot more attention after the riots at the Stonewall Bar in New York, but a curious thing the New York Times, for instance, featured a story about that riot way back in the paper. I think it was page 35. Uh, other papers such as the Daily News and the Village Voice featured it on their front pages.
However, the Daily News, for instance, in a sense made a mockery of it because they would say things like the rioters stood bra strap to bra strap. Well, it’s very colorful and very interesting, but that’s just not a serious news article about what those rioters saw as a serious situation. and what they were protesting was police harassment in this case of the Stonewall Bar, but it did happen to other bars.
The New York Times carried additional stories, one or two. They were also featured in the back of the paper. They were not featured as front-page news. If you had had any other minority rioting in Manhattan, I would suspect that you would have a front-page story, but newspaper publishers, newspaper editors were afraid that by carrying information about homosexuals in their papers, especially on the front page, would drive away readers.
They did not want to offend readers. Now they could carry stories about other minorities and not have the same types of worries. But with homosexuals, it carried that kind of baggage. That summer of 1969, as I said, is looked on as the beginning of the modern gay rights movement. And what’s so interesting about it is that date in late June 1969 has been adopted for the gay movements around the world. Even in countries that are in Eastern Europe, even in countries in Asia, they look toward the end of June, which was when our riots here happened in New York as their time to celebrate the gay movement.
Ken Ward: Interesting. Well, I’m afraid we’re running out of time and I want to make sure you have time to address this final question that we ask all of our guests, and that is why does journalism history matter?
Edward Alwood: I go to a restaurant not far from my home here and above one of the seats is a poster and the poster says, “It takes a lot of history to create something new.” And I believe that. And as we are taught as journalists in journalism schools, we need to put things in perspective. When we do an important story, we need to put the story in context.
So, what I’m telling you today, for instance, is the context for how the gay rights movement attracted publicity and attracted notoriety in the mainstream press. We now have a lot more outlets. We have Twitter, we have Facebook, etc. But at the time the gay rights movement was starting, the mainstream press was the only avenue to reach mainstream America.
Ken Ward: Interesting. Well, that’s all the time that we have for this episode. Ed, I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. Thank you so much for being on the show.
Edward Alwood: Thank you so much for having me.
Ken Ward: Well, that’s it for this episode. Thank you for tuning in and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter @JHistoryJournal. That’s all one word. Until next time I’m your host, Ken Ward signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow: Good night and good luck.